Sand(y)storm

I admit it. When I first saw the email telling me that our university, like so many other institutions on the eastern seaboard, was closed, I experienced a distinct burst of giddiness. A day “off” is the thought I dared to allow out of my subconscious mind onto the stage of discernable thought. I awoke to little more than thick, cloudy, tannish grey skies and a wet mist that quickly grew into a steady drizzle. I ventured out to our local market — the corner bodega, for you city folk — to pick up some coffee, taking a few snaps along the way but I returned with little more to show for my adventure than a damp sweatshirt and an ample supply of caffeine. I optimistically set out to accomplish a herculean number of tasks. After all, we were “off.”

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Seven hours passed by in a swirl of phone meetings, email catch up, and some writing – not the kind I was aiming to do, but of the kind I needed to do… after the tinny sounds of raindrops falling against the air conditioner swelled into a single, agitated noise… I made an empty-the-fridge frittata, use-up-the-fruit crostata, and made decent headway with the consumption of assorted sweets and treats under the convenient guise of preparing for possible power outage by minimizing food waste… all the while, the anxious weight of the word “yet” hung in the air as I, like the rest of the city, awaited the mythic winds that would prove to be even more harrowing than the “Frankenstorm,” as the popular press has taken to calling Hurricane Sandy, of 1938 – the last time a hurricane that even approached the current conditions. From the Slate story:

Without warning, a powerful Category 3 hurricane slams into Long Island and southern New England, causing 600 deaths and devastating coastal cities and towns. Also called the Long Island Express, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was the most destructive storm to strike the region in the 20th century.

At present, we are in the thick of Sandy’s turbulent fury. Outside, the wind screams as if in pain, a protestation of a sinful sort. Mine is an interior apartment, my windows have unremarkable views, which today provides an additional layer of protection against the churning squalls. I offer a note of thanks.

It is impossible to do anything but be in this storm. By being, I mean following along on twitter and occasionally on facebook, via text and email to my siblings and spouse, and becoming unavoidably transfixed by links to images and video that are flooding my twitterstream of rising water and submerged NYC iconography, sparking wires and resultant fires, of building facades turning to dust. And this is what the wind map of the United States looks like at present.

Another inappropriate thought: How beautiful… like a painstakingly hand-drawn etching of this world rather than the otherworldly chaotic havoc that it signals.

Whatever sense of wonder I was lost in, I was wrested violently from its comfort by the sounds of sirens, honking cars, metal clanging as if something was tumbling down the length of fire escape, a phone ringing relentlessly next door… Neighbors’ voices and the opening and shutting of doors interrupt the windswept operetta continuing ad nauseam on the other side of surprisingly dense window glass.

Like many of our counterparts, our university is closed again tomorrow, as is the NYC transit system, city public schools, and apparently everything south of 23rd street – which has receded into darkness unwittingly. My giddiness has dissolved into a state of anticipation tinged with irritation, still somewhat laced with wonder but not free from unease that settles in when a situation remains unsettled.

Waiting … for the impending aftermath… for power outage… for the unpredictable…

Metal clanging again, more loudly this time. Wind makes its presence known, lest we attempt to retreat into our dreams to forget whatever nightmare may await us in the light of day. Wind and water, a lesson in humility…

Is it somehow fitting, then, that Neruda found his way into my reading today?

Ode To Enchanted Light
by Pablo Neruda

Under the trees light
has dropped from the top of the sky,
light
like a green
latticework of branches,
shining
on every leaf,
drifting down like clean
white sand.

A cicada sends
its sawing song
high into the empty air.

The world is
a glass overflowing
with water.

Stories people tell me (1)

I can’t promise this is exactly how the storytellers worded them, but what follows is how I heard the stories unfold. Below, the first of three heard this past week.

Story 1 – graduate student, my office, in response to a remark about the black plastic bag containing the student’s belongings:

“Yesterday, while standing on the subway returning from [the place I work] to campus, I saw an older European man coming toward me. I assumed he was European – German, maybe – because he was wearing shorts and I guess that’s what I assume when I see shorts on a grown man in October. As he walked by me, trying to find a more suitable place to stand is what I thought to myself, his feet tapped mine. He mumbled something that resembled an apology, but I can’t be certain. After taking pains to circumambulate me, he stopped so that his back was now inches from my face. His shirt was tucked into his shorts, and then, without warning, I see [at this point, the student makes a hand gesture that, in the States, is occasionally used when singing the nursery rhyme “Itsy Bitsy Spider”] … a bed bug. And then, before I could get over my shock, another one crawling up the other side of his back. At this point, I’m thinking, ‘what do I do?’ because I can’t exactly yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded subway car. As I think, I begin to slowly inch backward, ensuring that the space between us is steadily increasing. What did I do? I got out of the subway car at the first opportunity! But then, realizing that I had further to go before getting where I needed to go, I hopped back onto another car on the same train and hoped that the man with the shorts had not been there first. And so, when I got home, I emptied the contents of my bag and washed it, which is where it is now and which is why I am using this black plastic bag to carry my things.”

today’s playlist

Those of us who write — for work, for play, for all the bits in between — think and talk to a great degree about voice. But so rarely in all that talk is there discussion of what the damn words actually sound like — the timbre, resonance, rhythm, cadence. What do our words sound like in the world? Spoken by others we may never meet? Or, for that matter, what is the sound of our voices as we dare to say the words we so boldly write, as we so baldly claim our voice.

And then, thoughts of voice — of timbre, resonance, rhythm, and cadence — took me to these voices, and I was soothed, intoxicated, transported.

It amazes me what people can do with their voices, what they choose to do, what they think to do. Alexi Murdoch is a recent discovery. The live rendition of “All my days” has been on a loop for the past hour and half. Can ears be transfixed? Mine are. (It only underscores the abject lack of quality of my own voice as I have participated in a few renditions of “happy birthday” in recent weeks…)

Near the end of a conversation (included below) between John Berger and Michael Ondaatje, all of which I love and highly recommend that everyone give a good listen to, they each reveal what path they might have pursued if they were not writers.

The question is proffered by Berger to his friend and interlocutor at around the 39:50 mark. He says, with his inimitable and somewhat rounded style of articulation, “If you could swap  your talents you for another of any kind, do you know you’d choose?”

Ondaatje responds with an eager “Oh yeah…” even before the question completes its exit from Berger’s mouth.

“I would want to be a piano player.” And, having said this, Ondaatje smiles momentarily, as if to take in his own response — one that he has clearly pondered many times before this one.

Berger: “huh…”

Ondaatje: “Well, what would you do?”

Berger — smiling, perhaps self-consciously or in a self-congratulatory manner, and nodding, his tan head prominent against his white shirt whose sleeves are messily rolled up — responds: “I would want to be a singer.”

Ondaatje: “And what kind of singing?”

Berger: “Doesn’t matter [shaking his head]… just … it–it doens’t matter…uhh… the devil or the fairy decide.”

Ondaatje: “Well we’ll meet in the next life and join up.” [laughing, and joined by Berger’s enthusiastic laughter at this proposition]

The guitar fantasy — the one about being able to create altogether new worlds with a simple wooden object, strings, and fingers in concert with voice — still lingers… Maybe in another life, indeed…

For now, in honor of the Nick Drake kind of week I’ve been having, thank you to my friend who first brought his music into the realm of my consciousness all those many, many years ago. A classic (albeit somewhat overused classic at this point):

shifting materiality of the “work week”

This week, teaching meant being a student — returning to joyfulness, to receiving without the expectation of giving (in the familiar and staid ways), to sharing vulnerabilities through silence and observation, to giving oneself over to the unexpected shapes or sounds that occurred, to being free from expectations of replicability — I return to some favorite words from a favorite theorist:

“Whereas a work has something irreplaceable and unique about it, a product can be reproduced exactly, and is in fact the result of repetitive acts and gestures.” — Henri Lefebvre

3 moments:

Learning printmaking (with paints and “stamps” or plates that we made) under the guidance of the incomparable O.

 

Delighting in the nervous giddiness of graduate students’ verbal and embodied articulations when given the invitation to make movies in class using Animoto.

 

Becoming transfixed by the vocal tenderness of Nina Simone.

 

 

Oh, and the bliss of sharing Sebald with someone for the first time (highlighting is mine) and thus being made, in the process, to revisit his poetry again, anew.

Let there be (autumn) light

…grant writing… head down… but not so much that I was not taken in by the slowly changing light moving ever so swiftly through time just outside of this 11th floor window (I’ve currently sequestered myself in a strange building where I am relishing the anonymity.)

the first photo from 3:45pm; the second from 5:30pm; and the third from 6:13pm

blue slowly gives way as the pinks begin to peek out, wavelengths spilling out of the cloistered units, dissipate into a momentary colorless atmosphere. and then sky become sky again; day to dusk to night.

 

 

tragic flaw

We all have them, those personality traits or characteristics that we can’t shake no matter how many self-help books we read, conversations we have with friends, meditation retreats we attend… For some, the trait is being too closed off, putting up boundaries for fear of being disappointed or hurt or angered. For others, the opposite is true — those whose hearts leap out at the first sign of another human being, less than desperate for human contact, so willing to give kindness to friends and strangers alike. I have friends who fit both of these categories, and others for whom saying yes or no is near impossible; still others whose ability to listen to a story of yours was predicated upon the opportunity to top it somehow (Ok, I’m not friends with any of the latter any more.).

I used to think my tragic flaw was procrastination. Last minute is when I did (and still do) everything, it seems. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I working until the very possible moment, working on multiple projects at once — because, while saying “no” is not a problem for me, I can’t quite pass on something that feels right and true and what a friend calls “soul-giving” — and more often than not, working past whatever deadline has been determined. (It doesn’t help to have an overdeveloped sense of how made up everything is… thereby making deadlines seem even more arbitrary than they already are — yet all too real in their made up arbitrariness.) But in this past week, while mired in the aforementioned book deadlines and conference proposal deadlines and grant deadlines and teaching and meetings and email responses and the re-revving up of the reference letter requests and, and, and… an all too simple thought occurred to me. My tragic flaw isn’t waiting until the last minute, nor is it taking on too many projects (for which I only have myself and my very persuasive, overachieving friends to blame — you know who you are…) — no the problem is perplexingly simple: while I have learned to collaborate well, I have not learned to delegate.

Being a “boss” was never a role that appealed to me. It was a different spirit of a university that drew me in, initially. Anne Carson, in describing John Henry Newman’s view, notes that

This gives one great pause — the pursuit of a “useless” existence, and all the trappings that come with claiming such a pursuit, such as accusations of elitism and myopia in the face of a world so burdened in many corners with the mere struggle of survival. But “useless” in Carson and Newman’s estimation is not without purpose; it is without predetermined use.

In this spirit, collaboration exists not only with others, but with the words and ideas of others as well — the “getting lost with abandon” nature of falling into a text or conversation — the full embrace of how artist Tacita Dean describes the experience of reading Sebald:

“He takes you down these poetic cul-de-sacs. And you don’t care that you’re being led nowhere, of course, because you learn so much on the way.”

Is that what a university is for? To be a space where education can be lived, at least in corners and whispers (if not completely out loud), free from agenda or tethers? (I know, I know, I hear it… the preachy-bordering-on-whiny; bear with me.) In her essay, which is titled “The Idea of a University (after John Henry Newman),” Anne Carson continues her simultaneous explication and wondering about knowledge and universities, and because I like her way with words so much I will simply reproduce them here:

In its most beautiful sense, a university setting can be one that nurtures inquiry for the sake of inquiry — a place that embraces, for instance, an ethos of research that is inherently collaborative, collective, and participatory.

But ever at the ready are those elements of the “institutional apparatus” that do not merely maintain but also earnestly endorse the status quo — and it is surprising how much paperwork the status quo requires!

Instead of sitting for hours upon days with transcripts or field notes or revisiting video or in the company of curious adolescents (who never fail to remind us old adults about the true nature of humility), I find my days increasingly taken up instead with decisions about topics too mundane to describe even obliquely. These are the times that try muggles’ souls. Suffice it to say that if someone approached me with an offer to become a painter’s assistant in a seaside Maine town or work in a hat shop along the Seine, I would leave in an instant.

Delegation, it seems to me, requires a certain degree of detachment wherein the task supersedes the person as the valued object. Is there a way to delegate humanely? And do shipbuilders or surgeons even worry about such things? And is not this worry about delegation merely a manifestation of a “use”-driven agenda rearing its ugly head? What does it matter whether the way our department assesses students’ [insert learning objective here] matches or meets the expectations determined by [insert state agency here]? (Would it be terribly wrong if I filled in all of the boxes on all of the grids with a simple “Trust us, it’s good.”?) Wherein delegation so often, but not always, is in service of running a more efficient machine — Sebald’s own words come through here:


For a response — of the sort in which a weary traveler’s nod at a passing delivery boy is done so in recognition of the doing that must be done in the moment in which it is — I turn a final time to Carson’s essay:

An earlier draft of this post once ended with a worry about how one achieves the ability to delegate. But then I took a walk, sat in the company of people who soothe my soul, took another walk, and had yet more conversations with friends and texts (which have become like friends, themselves) and have arrived at the conclusion that I’m going to continue collaborating, learn to delegate in service of that collaboration, and that it may be quite all right to remain inadequate when it comes to complying with the status quo.

In fact, I’d think it rather tragic if this flaw were to, say, suddenly disapparate